Tag Archives: raid

Operation Suicide: The Remarkable Story of the Cockleshell Raid by Robert Lyman

The ‘Cockleshell Heroes‘ raid is one of those operations that we all like to think we know everything about. Royal Marines, canoes, mines, Bordeaux, escaping. On the face of it, its a very daring escapade. But dig beyond the veneer of Hollywood history, and the story is even more fascinating and inspiring than it first appears.

Of course, being a Portsmouth bloke I’ve always been well aware of the Cockleshell Heroes. In fact, an ex-Bootneck down my mum and dads road was actually an extra in the film. Ah yes, the film. If you mention the Cockleshell Heroes, people think of a swarthy Mediterranean looking commander, an elderly second in command, and of brawling in Portsmouth pubs. Whilst the broad premise of the film was reasonably accurate, some of the names, personalities and suchlike were badly altered for whatever reason, and the background to the raid was not dealt with virtually at all.

What I found refreshing about this book is that Lyman has focussed more attention on the build up to the raid – its inspiration and genesis, and Hasler’s driving force behind it – than the actual raid itself. I think this is a smart move. To be honest – and as Lyman himself admits, C.E. Lucas-Phillips book of the 1950′s, written with the collaboration of Major Hasler, pretty much covered the raid itself very well.

The Cockleshell raid was not merely a case of sinking a few ships in occupied Europe. German ships had been attempting to break the Royal Navy’s blockade of Nazi-dominated Europe in an attempt to transport scarce raw materials between Germany and Japan and vice versa. Obviously, cutting off these blockade runners would seriously damage the Axis war effort. The Ministry of Economic Warfare targeted Bordeaux, and Combined Operations – led by Lord Louis Mountbatten – planned a daring raid.

One aspect that is often overlooked is how Hasler and Bill Sparks – the two sole survivors of the raid – made their escape from Bordeaux back to Britain. In terms of escape and evasion, the men were badly let down – they were not given the names of any French Resistance contacts, and only told, in the broadest terms, to head for a certain village. As Airey Neave of MI9 conceded after the raid, it was a terrific achievement for the men to make it home at all – via Ruffec, Lyon, Marseille, Barcelona, Madrid and Gibraltar.

Another mistake was the lack of co-ordination between Government and armed forces departments over raids. On the very morning that the limpet mines exploded, SOE operatives were on their way to the docks to plant bombs onboard the very same ships – both organisations were completely unaware of the others plans. If they had been able to work together, the damage might have been even more crippling on Germany.

I also like the manner in which Lyman has dealt with the very sensitive manner in which the remainder of the raiding party were executed by the Germans. In my experience, there is a wealth of documentation in official archives about war crimes, thanks to post-war investigations, and tragically it means that we can tell a lot about men who were killed in cold blood. Whilst writing about them might not be able to change history, at least their experiences might serve to remind us of why exactly they were fighting.

I enjoyed reading this book very much – it helped me through some very long train delays. And far more importantly, it achives the very difficult objective of shedding new light on a very-well known and intensely studied event in history.

Operation Suicide is published by Quercus Books.

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Filed under Book of the Week, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War Two

A German frogmen raid on Portsmouth?!

North Portsmouth, showing Ports Creek

North Portsmouth, showing Ports Creek

I have been having a very interesting discussion on ww2talk with member Steve G and several other interested parties about the possibility that the Germans may have either conducted, or have been planning to conduct, a commando raid against the Railway and or Road Bridges across Ports Creek. The subject arose when Steve was investigating a bomb or aerial mine that is believed to have hit nearby in 1940.

For those of you not in the know, Portsmouth is an island, divided from the mainland by a narrow strip of tidal sea water called Ports Creek. On the very north end of the island, butting up against the Hilsea Lines fortifications, was a Royal Army Ordnance Corps depot. Also nearby was Portsmouth Airport, where Airspeed – builders of the Oxford trainer and the Horsa Glider – had their main factory. In addition, the possibility of cripping Portsmouth Dockyard by cutting it off from the mainland must surely have tempted the German planners – particulary ahead of the possible German invasion in the summer of 1940.

Not only that, but it would have been possible to enter Ports Creek via Langstone Harbour. While Portsmouth Harbour was very heavily defended by an anti-submarine barrier and boat patrols, Langstone Harbour was much more vulnerable. It might have been possible to canoe up the Harbour in a similar manner to the Cockleshell Heroes raid on Bordeaux later in the war. Under cover of darkness and high tide frogmen could have swam to the piers of the road and rail bridges and set explosive charges on them.

According to something of a local legend, explosive charges were found nearby when work was begun on building the A27, which runs to the north of Ports Creek and has completely changed the area from its wartime appearance and geography. There remains a Second World War Pill Box near the Railway Bridge, facing south over the Creek, although when it was built we are not sure.

This is certainly the kind of operation that Major ‘Blondie’ Hasler would have approved of, and the Italians definitely had some capable frogmen as shown by their cripping of HMS Queen Elizabeth in 1942. But did the Germans possess the special forces to take on such a task? As far as I can tell, German Marines were an almost non-existent entity in 1940. Even so, it would have taken a considerable raid by the Luftwaffe to destroy the Bridges – and even then success could not be assured – whereas a couple of frogmen would have had a reasonable chance of crippling Portsmouth.

Did it happen? If not, could it have happened? Hopefully I can find out… unless anyone else out there can shed any light on this story?

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Filed under Local History, World War Two